by Marcia Tanner
Kudos to Hosfelt Gallery for mounting this museum-worthy survey of recent work by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. Remarkably, it’s her first West Coast solo exhibition. I say remarkably because even though she represented Australia in the 2003 Venice Biennale, has exhibited internationally, and her sculptures, drawings, installations and videos are in museum collections around the world, no institution in the Bay Area has had the guts or the vision to show her disquieting, compelling, genre-bending projects in depth until now. (Before this, her work appeared in Brides of Frankenstein at the San Jose Museum of Art, in 2005, and in two other group shows, Call of the Wild at Hosfelt and Seven Sisters at Jenkins-Johnson, both in 2013.)
Yet if Piccinini’s work belongs anywhere it’s in the Bay Area, center of research in genetic engineering, biotechnology, bionics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics — the whole gamut of industries dedicated to blurring the distinctions among human, animal, plant, machine, electronic and digital forms of existence. The potential consequences of these technologies, and the emotional, moral and existential questions they raise, are what her work is all about.
Piccinini’s sculptural creatures are hypothetical hybrid beings: chimerical, speculative fictions inspired by contemporary scientific and technological developments already in play in the real world. Made, variously, of silicone, fiberglass, resin, human hair, animal fur, polycarbonate, auto paint — a range of organic and inorganic materials — they are simultaneously hyperreal and surreal, combining traits from diverse modes of being.
Some are fleshy, hairy, quasi-organic forms that mingle human, animal and vegetable elements — often alluding to both plant and animal sexual organs — with non-organic human-made appurtenances. Boot Flower, for instance, is a weird pear-shaped organism sprouting a sexually allusive blossom resembling a high-heeled cowboy boot. Vaguely human and probably female, with its cascade of long hair, it has laid a clutch of reptilian white eggs. The Dancer, whose head is part simian, part human, balances on a body shaped like furry pointe shoes; it regards the world through large melting eyes with forthright apprehension, as if wondering how it ever got trapped in this shape. You want to protect it even as it repels you.
That ambivalent response is precisely the effect Piccinini strives to arouse in viewers. Her earlier creatures were more literal, more realistic, melding deeply unsettling combinations of human and animal characteristics, familial relationships and facial expressions that suggest self-awareness, however rudimentary. These recent inventions are harder to love but equally impossible to disregard. They drive us to the brink of the “uncanny valley”: the aesthetic “gray scale” that determines the degree of comfort or revulsion we experience with manufactured human facsimiles, like robots.
Piccinini’s creatures deliberately court this zone of unease. They evoke both empathy and repugnance, concern for their survival and well-being along with nagging questions about how such anomalies evolved and what their lives are like. Verging on the monstrous, the grotesque, they’re also sensually and emotionally engaging, even sexy and cute. They may look like botched experiments by irresponsible scientists, or the products of genetic engineering escaped into the wild, or natural mutations abetted by radioactivity or chemical pollution or climate change or other kinds of human intervention. But here they are among us, sharing our space with emphatic vitality. You worry about them. They seem so singular and vulnerable; in what unimaginable environment can they be viable, let alone thrive? “The universe abounds with forms,” wrote Wallace Stevens. How should we relate to these?
In contrast are Piccinini’s metallic, quasi-automotive sculptures: cool, sleek, high-gloss examples of “finish fetish” with biomorphic characteristics. Embryo, for example, is a shiny red- and-yellow “fetal automobile,” in the larval stage of its life cycle, all head and eyes, like a cartoon character, with incipient wheel buds, almost adorable. Trident is an adolescent motorcycle, bright blue and silver, shapely, impeccably molded and finished, brash and assertive yet still immature. Are these the
smart, self-driving vehicles of the future? You can imagine them growing in incubators at Tesla Motors, "all watched over" — in Richard Brautigan's words — "by machines of loving grace." These sculptures raise similar questions of origin and destiny: Do they have mothers? Can they self-replicate? Do they direct their own development via artificial intelligence?
All the works in this important, haunting, exuberant show — which also includes drawings, paintings, assemblages and a video — provoke us to reflect on our relationships with nature and each other in this era of accelerating human innovation and planet-changing human impact.
Some have called this geologic time period the Anthropocene, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth-system processes have been irreversibly altered by human activity. Patricia Piccinini is the visual poet and troubled maternal conscience of the Anthropocene. We should heed her vision.
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Patricia Piccinini: “We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep” @ Hosfelt Gallery through July 9, 2016.
About the Author:
Marcia Tanner is a writer, independent curator and swimmer who lives in Oakland. Patricia Piccinini’s work was included in Brides of Frankenstein, 2005, an exhibition Tanner organized as guest curator at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Mary Hull Webster says